Maugham by Ted Morgan. Simon and Schuster, 711 pp. $17.95.
The mature work of Somerset Maugham is nothing if not honest. It moves on the weight of his blunt, plain sentences, which he delivers to the reader like so many body blows. One thinks, for instance, of The Summing Up, a book which Maugham wrote in his sixties to say a final word on things (unfortunately, he then lived to ninety-one) and in which the stark honesty of the prose is almost breathtaking. “Though I have been in love a good many times I have never experienced the bliss of requited love. I have most loved people who cared little or nothing for me and when people have loved me I have been embarrassed.” He couldn’t have said it more plainly than that.
It is striking, then, that Ted Morgan believes a central fact of Maugham’s life to have been that he had a secret. Morgan draws an interesting, if rather simplistic, distinction between Victorian and Edwardian England — that Queen Victoria was a morally upright woman who actually believed in the life she led, while King Edward led an outwardly decorous life but thought it was all right to run around on the sly. Maugham was the quintessential Edwardian novelist, urbane, wealthy, widely traveled, aristocratic in manner, elegantly attired; he spent much of his life in an estate on the Riviera and consorted with the great and glorious of the world. But he also had another life, which he was very touchy about revealing. Frightened as a young man by the persecution of Oscar Wilde, he never admitted to his ardent homosexuality. He felt free — and apparently at ease in his conscience — about practicing it, and his inclination was well known among his friends, but he almost never spoke of it; he made an unhappy marriage and had a daughter largely in order to hide it. He thus acknowledged much in front of the world, but not all, and not, perhaps, the central thing. To some extent he never fully participated in the world, but held himself back, and observed it.
One gets the feeling from Maugham of an ultimate sureness: a strong prose style has that virtue, that it gives the illusion of certainty. It is easy to forget that he had an extremely long life as a writer, and that the first work we remember him for, Of Human Bondage, was written when he was past forty. Early in his career he floundered. Born in France, so that his first language was a kind of fractured French, he was orphaned at the age of ten, sent to England to live with an uncle. It was apparently this trauma of losing his parents and being uprooted that produced Maugham’s famous stammer; he had never stammered until he moved to England. (He even went as far as to say, late in his life, that without his stammer he would have led a more public career; it was because he was uncomfortable talking that he was led to write.) He was unhappy in his uncle’s home and at school. When it came time for him to choose a career his uncle shuffled through the professions, trying to find something that this dull boy with a stammer could manage. Maugham already knew he wanted to write, but couldn’t admit this disgraceful ambition to his uncle, so he went off to medical school and a stint in a London hospital, while writing at night. His first novel, which drew on the sordid world he experienced as a doctor in the slums, was published by the first publisher he sent it to, and had a mild success.
Critical success was something Maugham always longed for, but it was also never enough. He was a deeply serious writer who nevertheless always had one eye on his bank account. Early in his career, like many novelists who are eventually very popular, he produced some rather pallid work, trying to decide what the public wanted. He had a strong ambition to be a playwright, at first as a kind of British Ibsen, who would expose the sham and hypocrisy of conventional social life, but when that didn’t pan out he felt no qualms about turning to light, drawing room comedies. He produced a great deal of work in the early years, lived from hand to mouth, but after a number of rejections had a play taken and experienced a sudden stunning success. At one point he had four plays running in London at the same time (a famous cartoon shows Shakespeare looking worriedly at the notices); he found wealth, fame, and entrance to the upper echelons of British society.
Maugham was not ruined by wealth; it freed him to do his most important work. Satisfied by his success as a playwright, he was able to turn to the painful story of his youth, and wrote Of Human Bondage. Probably it is his greatest work, the one that seems most completely realized and is closest to him emotionally (though, as many have pointed out, he changes his stammer, a disability which to some extent the sufferer produces in himself, into a clubfoot, one which he is born with); it is the one novel by Maugham which may survive as a classic. Yet though it is easy to read — he was the most readable of writers — it is exceedingly painful, and grim. The work which was perhaps most characteristic of Maugham, most widely and pleasurably read, was produced later.
Maugham spent many of his most successful years in the presence of a secretary and sexual companion named Gerald Haxton, who was in some ways the opposite of his reserved and decorous employer. Outgoing, charming, something of a boozer, scoundrel, and hellion, he found boys for Maugham but also, uniquely, found him material. They literally traveled the globe together, the outgoing Haxton making social contacts for his boss, and it was in this period of his career that Maugham wrote his short stories, possibly the most successful and celebrated aspect of his writings. His stories, like his life, spanned the globe, and he had an extraordinary talent for conceiving them; during his most fertile period he said he couldn’t spend an hour with someone without getting a story out of it. The stories are distant, engagingly told, often witty. They are anecdotal in that they always deal with an incident, but the incidents serve to reveal character, and in their swift clean lines the stories stand as narrative works of art. It was during the period of the stories that Maugham wrote what is probably his most controversial novel and to my mind his most successful one, Cakes and Ale. It presents a bitter portrait of his stuffy uncle, gossipy caricatures of two famous literary figures — Thomas Hardy and Hugh Walpole — and a bright sketch of a delightful young woman, supposedly someone whom Maugham knew in his youth, who bestowed her sexual favors freely and lived — in a way that Maugham never could — just as she wanted.
Ted Morgan has obviously chosen a grand subject for biography, but recent years of literary biography have shown that even the best subjects can be rendered dry as dust; fortunately, Morgan is up to the occasion. His analysis of Maugham is not terribly deep, but he is dealing with a writer who stuck pretty much to surfaces himself, who traveled everywhere and knew everyone; wisely, Morgan follows the events. He probably gives synopses of too many works, but literary biographers invariably face that problem when dealing with writers who wrote a great deal and for whom writing was the central fact of their existence. Refreshingly, Morgan is not a biographer who fawns all over his subject; at times, in fact, he seems too hard on him. His Maugham is a richly detailed biography which, in all but a few places, makes fascinating reading.
Much has been made of Maugham’s cynicism, his pessimism, detachment, and plain gossipy bitchiness, particularly toward the end of his life. His final years were wretched; his body remained in remarkable shape but his mind grew senile, and his behavior was often irrational and embarrassing. “I will show them!” he shouted in one of his mindless rages. “I’ll put them back into the gutter where they belong! I’ll get even with them! Sons of bitches!” Yet he served his country bravely in two world wars; he was kind and loving to a number of people, particularly Gerald Haxton when he was ill; though tight with his money, he showed a number of examples of unusual generosity; and throughout his life he exhibited an admirable stoic courage and endurance. It is easy to gloss over facts on the printed page, nothing easier than to write, “He was orphaned at the age of ten,” but there is a terrible sadness in Maugham’s early life that even Of Human Bondage does not fully capture. Toward the end of his life Maugham said that his mother’s was the only example of unselfish giving love that he ever knew; he loved her deeply and loved her memory all his life. One cannot help thinking of that boy of ten, leaving the country and the home he had grown up in, going off to live with an uncle who — though perhaps not a bad man — was middle-aged, and stuffy, and hardly wanted a child. Many photographs exist of Maugham the successful writer — he seemed to enjoy posing — and in the deeply lined face, the downturned mouth, the sad sad eyes, most choose to see the bitchy, cynical, world-weary author, but I can’t help seeing the ten-year-old boy, sailing alone across the water, leaving the only time in his life that he would ever think of as happy, and trying bravely to bear up.